Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop

Fuschia Dunlop is a courageous woman.  In the 1990s she was in her twenties and she left her job with the BBC to study in China  - and stayed there, independently.  She travelled to several quite risky areas: Tibet, Hunan and the automonous region Xinjiang in the northwest, but it is Sichuan Province which she first made her home and the fiery cooking of Chengdu.  Along the way she encountered chefs, cookery classmates, gourmands, and also a selection of villagers, government officials, minders and policemen.  None of them seem to intimidate her.  Fuschia Dunlop was on a mission - to discover Chinese food and bring back the various regional specialities to the west.  Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper is her 'sweet-sour memoir' of this adventure.

She became the first Westerner to enroll as an apprentice chef, and her enthusiasm for the single Chinese cutting instrument, the cleaver, is described in fascinating detail.  Apart from using the blade to cut in several different ways and directions, the cleaver can also be used to pound, gauge and scrape.  The handle can act as a pestle.  The flat edge of the blade can smash, and also act as a scoop.

Stir frying likewise has many different variants:  according to the temperature (eight are specified) and length of cooking stir frying can be, for example, explosive, or at another time, fragrant.  Flavours are another source of variation.  The off-tastes (fishy, muttony and uriney) have to be avoided, but complicated flavours (e.g. 'fish flavour' consisting of pickled chilis, fermented broad bean, ginger garlic and spring onion) are encouraged.

I learnt a lot about Chinese cookery and also about China in Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper (there are a few recipes, but these are not really the focus of the book - and one she admits is just there as an illustration since the main ingredient is a bear's paw).  I learnt that Monosodium Glutamate (derived from seaweed) has been found to have a flavour of its own - umami (to go alongside, sweet, sour, bitter and salty), that the great famine caused 'starvation cuisine' in China (i.e a propensity to eat everything) is a myth, that the Chinese humoural system entered China with the Buddhists in the first millennium (where it chimed with the more ancient ying and yang), and may have had the same source as in the West.  I also found out that milk is becoming more popular in China (which debunks yet another myth that I'd heard - that Chinese adults are allergic to milk) and that the grandparents that knew starvation in the great famine now stuff their grandchildren (or grandchild) with western food.

All sorts of facets of Chinese eating are explored, and towards the end of the book there is a particularly thoughtful section on Chinese medicine and esoteric cuisine involving rare and endangered species, and a gruesome encounter with an unscrupulous cook who will acquire anything short of a panda to feed her pot and please her customer customer.  These are the undesirable characteristics of a new and prosperous China - a country that is becoming so increasingly polluted  that Fuschia Dunlop comes close to losing her enthusiasm for its contaminated cuisine.  It takes an encounter with the old China - the one miraculously preserved in Yangzhou - for it to return.

In a warming world of climate change where there are far too many people to be sustained on a western diet of dairy produce and meat, Fuschia Dunlop sees the old Chinese traditional diet of noodels or rice, seasonal vegetables and a little meat or fish offering hope.  It is, she says, a good model for world eating.


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